Matt Duke: “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t return to football after cancer”

Matt Duke Bradford Arsenal

Image by Claire Epton (copyright Bradford City)

By Katie Whyatt

Matt Duke remembers vividly the moment he learned fellow Bradford City goalkeeper Jon McLauglin had hurled a punch at Crawley Town’s Pablo Mills.

“I was at Northampton on loan, and I was leaving at about half six in the morning,” he begins. “I’d stayed at home that night and I was driving down on the Wednesday morning. My phone started bleeping. Kevin Pressman [the goalkeeper coach at City in 2011/12] had texted me saying, ‘You’re probably going to be getting called back.’ And I didn’t know. I’d seen Bradford had lost the game the night before, but then I’d literally switched the TV off and gone to bed. I didn’t hear the aftermath.”

He arrived at Northampton, trained, then learned he would be returning to Bradford after their League Two game at home to Crawley had ended with a brawl and five red cards. “It was a little bit of a disappointment, because things were going well down there,” Duke recalls. “Then you’re like, ‘Right, well, I’m going back to Bradford, and I’ve got to try and keep us in the league. That’s the challenge I’ve been set.’ And you take it.”

It his hard to believe Bradford City’s 2013 miracle season – a League Cup run and promotion from League Two – may never have happened had City’s March 27, 2012 home match against Crawley not erupted into fisticuffs. A turgid, combative evening ended with shinpads sailing through the Valley Parade night and Andrew Davies being dragged away, arms flailing like Scrappy Doo, ruing unfinished business.  Three of those red cards had been for City, who were without McLaughlin and Luke Oliver for three games and Andrew Davies for five.

City were left dangling five places above the drop with seven games to go. Less than a year later, Duke, now 41 and the academy goalkeeper coach at his boyhood club in Sheffield United, was stepping out at Wembley for a League Cup final, having fended off three then-Premier League sides en route.

Duke freely admits his first season at Bradford, in 2011/12 – before Arsenal, before Villa, before the cup heroics that saw his team mates fill newspapers the world over – was a testing one. Still with aspirations of figuring in the Hull side for whom he had made 22 Premier League appearances, he had instead slipped the other way, a loan at Derby under Nigel Clough the precursor to a permanent switch to Bradford in 2011.

“I don’t think, mentally, I was right, coming into City,” Duke says. “I’d just been released by Hull and I felt disappointed by that. It was the first time it had happened to me, so you can’t really legislate for how you’re going to react. So I was here and there, trialling everywhere in the summer, and I had couple of clubs offered but I didn’t feel they were right. You’re out of work and it’s a difficult time in your personal life. I just think it affected me for the whole summer, really, and it went from there. I let that affect me for the rest of the season. I came in and I didn’t hit the ground running. It wasn’t so much lost confidence – it was just not knowing what was happening. You’ve got a family, and you’ve got to try and find your job – I really took leaving Hull hard because I felt like I could still offer them something.”

The following February, Duke agreed a loan at League Two Northampton until the end of the season. Did he think his City career was over? “Not over, but I must admit: at the start of the following season, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go.” Yet here he was, re-routing from the Sixfields car park, headed back to a club where, even with another season on his contract, his future was uncertain. “There was potential of me going out at the start of the season, but it didn’t come off,” Duke admits. “But I didn’t want it to because it wasn’t right for both parties. But you just get on with it. You think, I’ll crack on – I’ll go from here and see where it takes me. And then we were on the training ground, working at it. The thing with Phil [Parkinson] was that he was very hard-working – he put the shift in on the training pitch. We picked up after that and we believed that we could stay up.”

In the end, City stayed up by six points. But Duke is literally a survivor. Dodging the drop in 2012 wasn’t anywhere near as critical as his biggest battle. Three years earlier, in January 2008, Duke was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“I’d found a lump so I went to see the club doctor at Hull,” he begins. “I just remember it took a while to get a scan because of a mix up with addresses. I got a scan on New Year’s Day. I went over, had the scan and then I had to go back on the third. Then they said to me, ‘Can you just wait in reception? You need to fill a form in.’ You think, that’s a bit strange, [but] I never thought anything of it. Then they pulled me round the corner and just said: ‘Look – it’s a tumour.’

“I remember being, like – obviously upset.” Do you process it at first? “Not really, no. I was shocked. And then it’s just the daft stuff. You think about what cancer means – and you think of death, and you think of all that sort of stuff. My eldest son was 18 months old then. You’re like, ‘I want to see him ride a bike, and I want to see him do this–‘ Just the daft stuff that you don’t really think about every day.

“Once I was telling people, it wasn’t so bad. I’d kind of got over – not so much got over the shock, but the initial upset and everything. And then I think it was people’s reactions to me who were upset – that was quite hard. I was 30 years old, and you’re young – people don’t expect to hear you’ve got that. That was hard to take.”

Two days later, on Saturday 5 January, he went under the knife to remove the tumour. “Then you just get on with it. It’s a process, isn’t it? The operation, the chemotherapy, the check-ups, stuff like that. You just kind of take it in your stride and that’s the way you had to do it.” He had one blast of chemotherapy, too. “Horrific,” he says simply. “It just knocked me for six, completely. I remember for two days just not being able to move and not being able to do anything, feeling shocking. Luckily, I didn’t have to have a course of it – I just had one strong batch, and then you kind of start to pick up every day after that. You feel a little bit better every day.”

Duke never doubted he would return to football. “The thing was – some people have ligament injuries and break a leg, and they’re the ones who might question whether or not they’ll come back,” he says. “It never even crossed my mind that I wouldn’t. But [after an experience like that], there’s not really a lot to worry about if you’ve got your health, really. Obviously you go through your day-to-day stuff, and you might whinge at something that’s not gone right – but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad is it, really, when you’ve got your health? And your family is healthy, and your kids are healthy. Nothing’s too much to worry about.”

“When Bradford beat Chelsea, you saw how big our cup run was. You think, what we achieved was probably bigger than that.”

Matt Duke 1

Image by Claire Epton (copyright Bradford City)

Having worked with Parkinson at Hull, Duke describes reuniting with his former boss, when Bradford came calling in August 2011, a “no-brainer”. He came back the following  summer feeling “mentally better”, and, like Alan Connell, remembers the pre-season trip to Ireland as a particularly foundational period.

“Everybody just gelled straight away,” Duke explains. “Everything was going well, then the last night before we came home, we were allowed a bit of a night out. Everything about it was good. The lads were clicking and the night was fantastic. You just felt, ‘Right – we’re going to achieve something this season.’ You just felt there was a togetherness in the group, like we were going to do something.” Did it feel different to the previous season? “Yeah, definitely. There was something about the club previously that felt very… I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody, but it didn’t seem very professional. And I think Phil had come in and he’d got the staff and the players and the way he wanted it to be. It just felt more like a professional football club, whereas, before, I think it was just a little bit mismatched, just not quite there.

“There just seemed a togetherness [in 2013] and the players seemed more professional. We were really close as a squad that year. We had car schools that were close, everybody got on, there were no real cliques, and then because it was such a good squad, whoever came in was welcomed straight away.

“The players that came in that year were people like Gary Jones, who had been around the block, were professional, just got on with the job and knew what they were doing. He was good because he got onto the lads if things weren’t going right. He was a captain and he led by example.”

It was at Wigan where City’s League Cup odyssey began in earnest, the Bantams keeping Roberto Martinez’s side at bay for two hours before taking the game to penalties. “[We were] playing four at the back and six in midfield, and six in defence and four across the middle – we hardly attacked!” Duke jokes. “We just went there and tried to defend. And I remember the travelling fans – there were 5,000 fans there, more Bradford fans than Wigan fans. The fans were banging the drums – and then it goes to penalties.” That City side made an art form of the shootout, winning three that season, and Duke attributes their success to “a general idea [of penalty takers] before the game [based on] people who are in the squad. We had people who’d played at clubs and been a regular penalty taker.”

Did Duke, a keeper in the form of his life, feel like he was going to save everything? “A little bit like that, yeah. You just feel good. You’re confident, and there’s not many doubts in your mind. It’s a good thing, but I was always at the point where you come to the next game and you go, ‘Right, well, that’s gone.’ You’ve got to go again. Your next mistake’s only round the corner if you let things slip. But it’s easier against better opposition, in my opinion. You sort of see where they’re striking the ball and where they’re trying to put it.”

Arsenal were next. Again, Duke commanded the headlines, saving Santi Cazorla’s penalty in the shootout before Thomas Vermaelen drove his against the post.

Duke remembers feeling a “buzz around the place” as he walked to the ground. “You always think they’ll play a weaker team, but on the night of the game, they put the big guns out.” Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Coquelin, Podolski, Gervinho. “We were all in the dressing room before, and we looked at the teamsheet, and we just laughed, as though to say, ‘Pffft- right then. Bring it on, then. Let’s do it. Let’s go and have a crack.’ It’s more of a challenge. I don’t think it feels [like] there’s as much pressure – you’re the underdog and you’re not expected to win, and I think that’s the thing that sort of relieves you. But on the flip-side, you rise to that challenge. Can we prove people wrong? I didn’t feel any extra pressure.

“The longer the game goes on, there’s a bit more pressure, but we felt good. The big guns always get one at the end, and they ended up sneaking one in.” Parkinson was typically measured as Thomas Vermaelen’s leveller with two minutes to go took the tie to extra time: keep doing what you’re doing, try and keep it solid. “But it was just a good feeling,” smiles Duke. “People were jumping on our backs as were walking round the pitch, and all the fans – just the atmosphere and the noise that night was incredible. That’s the big thing that sticks out.”

Matt Duke

Image by Claire Epton (copyright Bradford City)

Duke was between the sticks for the semi-final, as snow swirled and flags were unfurled at a frigid Villa Park. Nerves were taut in the away end, goals from Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann bookending James Hanson’s iconic header, but Duke’s conviction was unwavering. “I honestly believed: if we score, we’re through,” he says simply. “We knew we would be under pressure and we knew that they were going to come at us – but as soon as Hanson scored, I thought we’d done it. I know they nicked one late on, and then you’re just trying to hang on, but I genuinely believed we would do it. Again, [I remember walking] around the pitch, going up to the fans, the pictures where we are jumping over the crowd. And in the dressing room afterwards, all the press want to interview you and congratulate you.”

City became the first fourth tier side to reach the League Cup final since Rochdale in 1962 – back then, the final was played over two legs, meaning City are the only fourth division side ever to reach a Wembley final. Yet Swansea zipped and glided under the shadow of the Wembley arch with a swagger that bordered on the terrifying. The Bantams’ chastening afternoon was encapsulated in the moment Duke was shown a straight red after he felled Jonathan de Guzman inside the area.

“It was a bit like, this story shouldn’t end like this, for me,” Duke says. “We’d done so well. I’ve only been sent off once in my career, and if you’re going to get sent off, you might as well get sent off at Wembley. You don’t necessarily want to go away and hide, but I remember not enjoying the game because it was pretty much so one-sided that it wasn’t a contest. To be fair, that’s the way the other games should have been, but they weren’t. The bigger pitch just suited Swansea and we couldn’t get near them on the day.”

A 4-1 defeat at Exeter saw McLaughlin regain the number one spot until the end of the season. Duke’s final City appearance came in a dead rubber game at Cheltenham, weeks before the play-off final.

He had expected, as he jointly raised the gleaming winners’ trophy with McLaughin, to be preparing for another season at City. In the end, it was his last. “I was just disappointed, really, because [of] what we’d achieved,” Duke says. “But the biggest disappointment for me was that the contract was in black and white: if we got promoted, I got offered another two-year contract on a little bit more money. And [the club] just basically said, ‘We’re not going to give you that.’ They offered me less money on a year’s contract. I was, like, ‘It’s in black and white there – if we get promoted, that’s what I get.’ And they basically said, no – that’s not going to happen. So straight away, I was, like, ‘I’m not going to sign, then, because you’ve gone back on your word and on something that’s in black and white.’ That was one of the reasons I came, [to] get promotion. We’d talked about getting them back up the leagues. It was sort of like: ‘here’s your reward for that’ – and then you do it, and they pull the plug on it. It just leaves a bit of a bitter taste in your mouth.

“That’s obviously one of the big reasons why I left. I knew I’d get another club because I had clubs already asking me what was happening. And you end up moving on, which was a big disappointment.”

Duke signed for Northampton permanently, the final EFL club for whom he would make an appearance. But now, six years on, the gravity of City’s cup achievements is beginning to settle in.

“You’re aware it’s big, but when you step out of it and you look back at it now, you realise how big it was,” he concludes. “Because when you’re inside it, and you’re living it – you don’t realise what you’re achieving as much. And as I look back now, you see how big it is. When Bradford beat Chelsea, you think, well, actually – what we achieved was probably bigger than that. You realise what an achievement it was.

“[I’m] just really proud of what we achieved, and that legacy will stand for a long time, won’t it? I know the fans talk about it, and it’s probably their favourite memories of being a Bradford fan. They’d gone from the Premier League to financial troubles and they’ve got the fire in their history. It’s nice to put some positive stuff into the history of the football club.”

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7 replies

  1. Excellent article.

    It’s disappointing to hear how Duke was treated regarding his contract after promotion in 2013.

  2. Great read from a man I admire, a true professional who in years from now will always be remembered for what we witnessed whilst he was playing for us.

  3. The goalkeeper coach was Kevin Pressman (not Preston).

  4. Great article, and a nice reminder of how good the club was then.

  5. Love articles like this Shame the club didn’t honour Duke’s contract proposal when the team gave them such a big earner that season, Its these times that we all look back on with immense pride and wish to have a lot more

  6. fantastic read.

    really disappointed in the club to hear we pulled the rug on his new deal he was entitled to – thats pretty poor really!

    Dddddduuuuuuukkkkkkkeeeeeeee!!

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